This is one of those graphic farm stories you might want to skip, unless you raise or take care of animals on a regular basis. I certainly would have passed on this experience if I had been able, because even describing the events as they unfolded still sounds so incredibly impossible…and unforseen. Apparently, I should have read my How To Raise Sheep book with more diligence and care. If you are a vet, this story may have some interest and you will nod your head in understanding and probably furrow your brow once you hear how we handled it. The one thing that all agree who have dealt with sheep – they are a hardy lot and what you think should kill them often does not.
Of course, as an interesting side note (and one that may save a sheep in the future when you find yourself driving through the rural countryside, so I shall add it here), there are things that kill sheep, little things that don’t seem quite fair. Getting stuck on their back in a ditch in the field will kill sheep soon enough if no one tugs on a leg and turns them right-side up. That’s your part, or at least to notify the owner of the sheep. The multiple stomachs don’t like to be up-ended for any length of time. They twist and then bloat. It can get pretty ugly. And, yes, this has happened to us several times (the sheep on their backs part).
I have received calls from neighbors on their way to work, “I think you have a dead sheep in the pasture.” Sure enough, I can see in the distance a downed ewe, her legs sticking straight in the air, as if rigor mortis had set in. I am sure she is dead, wondering how I could be such a bad shepherd … until I see the slightest twitch of an ear and know we are lucky this time. Thankfully, it doesn’t take much to right a sheep. She will sway for a bit until her head clears, then move off to find the rest of the flock as if nothing has happened … except she could have died.
All things being equal, a sheep on her back is a walk in the park. That was not the problem here. I should have had an inkling lambing season was going to be difficult when I started having troubles before I ever saw a lamb. I didn’t actually know I had trouble until Salty, one of the former owner’s of our farm, stopped over to fill his water jugs and, looking out the window, thought he saw a ewe in distress.
Why was it, every time either Gisela or Salty came over, we had some animal down or birthing or dying? I think Salty asked himself the same question. I, on the other hand, was thankful he recognized we had a problem, as he obviously had better eyes and more years of experience at this. Salty said he thought I had a ewe with a prolapsed uterus and we needed to catch her and fix it. Fix it? In my defense, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be looking for and, once pointed out, what I was looking at either. I followed him out the door and grabbed a rope from the wood shop for good measure.
As we trotted down the orchard, I scanned the flock for a prolapsed uterus. A what? Salty informed me, “A big, red ‘balloon’ hanging out of the back side of the sheep.” I saw it. The ewe looked around at us and then at her backside. Oh, my God, where did that come from and how were we going to get it back in? We needed to catch the ewe, that, while in some pain and hobbled by the prolapse, seemed quite able to run, avoiding our outstretched arms and poorly flung lasso.
I am quite the girl when it comes to catching sheep. It is not a natural act to fling myself upon a fleeing animal in a body tackle. I would rather wrap my hands in wool and hang on, if I could ever get close enough to grab onto anything more than air. Salty chased the ewe down to the river’s edge. If she crossed into the cold water, we would lose her since there was no easy way across in that area. Luckily, I found them both on the ground, leaning into the wet moss and mud of the river bank, Salty’s legs wrapped around the ewe to hold her down. Then, I listened to his directions.
I was going to need some warm water,soap and rubber gloves. He couldn’t quite remember how Gisela used to do this because he was always on the other end, but somehow, I needed to push the prolapsed member back into the ewe. I ran to the house and decided on the way to call my sheep mentor, Russ, and ask his advice. This had happened to his sheep before. It wasn’t pretty, but it was possible to correct. His voice was calm and cool as he went through the procedure. My former city life seemed farther away than ever.
With the directions in my head, I rejoined a now soggy and tired Salty on the banks of the Honey Grove. I washed the ewe, put antiseptic on my gloves, and grabbed the offending part. With steady pressure, I started to push, breathing slowly, whispering cooing sounds to the ewe that had ceased to struggle, but grunted softly. All of a sudden the prolapse retreated back into place. I couldn’t believe it. She was whole once again with everything where it shoud be. We let the ewe up. I slipped the lasso over her neck. We had caught her once. I didn’t want to let her go just yet.
Salty could not leave fast enough. I wasn’t even sure I would ever see him again. He would probably tell Gisela to come get her own water next time. It was lambing season. Who knew what other horrible afflictions lurked around the farm. I called Russ back to tell him of our success and he mildly informed me to keep an eye on the ewe. She could prolapse again. What?!!! I had an appointment in town. She would be fine. I would just lock the ewe in the garden to localize her movements and check on her when I returned home.
The ewe prolapsed while I was gone and by the time I finally found her, since she had also broken out of the garden, the skies were dark and cloudy with rain and night falling. I had no idea how long she had been in this shape. The longer the prolapse; the harder the retraction. But, this time, I knew the procedure. This time it was Greg in the mud holding down the ewe. This time, the prolapse wouldn’t retreat no matter how hard or how long I pushed. I called Russ again. Could he come over and help?
We literally dragged the ewe up to the barn, both for light and only slightly more sanitary conditions on the barn floor. In the meantime, I had been wondering how a pregnant ewe could have a prolapsed uterus if she still had babies inside her. It didn’t make anatomical sense. As Greg was holding the ewe and Russ and I were lying side by side on the ground trying to get four hands around this red balloon to push with even pressure, Russ admitted that maybe this wasn’t the uterus. He wasn’t all that up on female anatomy. I thought so. This was a prolapsed vagina. At least that cleared up one mystery. The babies were still inside and needed a way out.
We almost gave up. We probably pushed for 30 minutes and everyone, including the ewe was starting to get tired. Then, the boys had a thought. What if we used gravity to help? What if we put the ewe on her back and lifted her hind end off the ground. Just like that, the vagina retreated back to its safe spot. We had long ago given up with trying to keep everything clean and now all I could hope was a shot of antibiotics might knock out any infection.
We took one other preventative measure. We inserted a prolapse paddle into the ewe to discourage further problems. You have to figure, if there is a prolapse paddle, this is not that rare an occurrence in the lambing world. There was even an entire section in my sheep book once I looked under ‘prolapse’. The paddle would keep the sheep safe until she was ready to deliver. Russ told me I would need to pull the paddle right before delivery and the lambs should birth just fine. Since most of our ewes deliver their lambs in the middle of the night, how was I supposed to time this? Did I need to sleep in the barn? It didn’t look as if my own problems were diminishing.
As it turned out, I was ultimately well aware when the ewe went into labor. I required both Russ’ and his wife, Carolyn’s, assistance again. But, that is another story for another time. It is important to note only that this rural life is filled with neighbors willing to leave a warm fire or dinner table to assist when called. We are blessed with that kind of friendship. We are also blessed when sheep do not need any assistance from us, either stuck upside down in a ditch or trailing things from their backsides, but we are their shepherds and, so, we do the best we can when necessary.
(This photo shows our new Katahdin sheep with 3-day-old lambs. They are said to be “easy-keepers” both on the land and during lambing. We have brought them in to try and do away with stories like the one just recounted. I will report back in the spring, but these little darlings all birthed without assistance early this fall.)
All rights reserved. Copyright Scottie Jones 2006